Europe Reborn As A Budget Destination?

By David DeFranza on 28 March 2008 17 comments
Photo: Vic Lic

I had abandoned Europe as a possibility for the budget traveler long ago. I did it with great difficulty, because I know from experience there is nothing like the food, history, and atmosphere of Europe. Still, a strong euro and expensive flights seemed to offer no other choice. That is, until I read about a deal to be made on Sunday.

The Open Skies agreement, reducing restrictions on flights between the United States and Europe, is expected to foster competition and, at some key airports like London's Heathrow, spark as much as a 20% increase in transatlantic traffic by June. With this increase in volume and competition experts predict "in the next 18 months you will be able to travel at a steep discount to Europe."

We may not have to wait for major airlines to catch on. Zoom airlines has already begun an aggresive expansion program, with flight schedules modeled after the regional low cost carriers, to drive down the price of flying to Europe. At the moment it is still no bargain, but with a little more competition and room to operate, these already discounted fares will likely drop even further.

For me, the possibility of more reasonable airfares triggered daydreams about lazy coffees at French cafes. With the current exchange, that would be a lazy, budget breaking, $10 coffee. Reality seeped in and I realized that even with the cheapest flight possible, the value of a weakening dollar is a serious budget challenge. But, does it necessarily make travel in Europe impossibly expensive?

Thanks to EasyJet, RyanAir, and other pioneers of low cost airfare, it is still cheap, even with a weak dollar, to fly around Europe. With CouchSurfing and other room share programs, It is possible to sleep for free. This option may not work well for families, but there is always the opportunity of a home exchange.

Of course, there are other expenses that will have to be dealt with. Perhaps the best way to beat the weak exchange is to avoid the euro all together. From Poland and Hungry, to Estonia, Sweeden, and the Czech Republic, there are many excellent destinations not yet on the euro. Even if forced to face a euro exchange, all is not lost. There are many tricks to eating cheap abroad, visiting museums, and even shopping that can help cut the costs.

This is all good in theory, but is it possible in the New Europe? I found some admirable examples of budget travel in Europe. Frankly, it was inspiring.

So, am I off to find the coffee of my daydreams? Well, if I am, it will be relegated to a planned "splurge" in the budget, I am afraid. Still, I am now convinced that a budget trip to Europe, while it may require some careful planning, is possible. I think that, even with frightening reports, this most expensive of destinations can show us just how much travel is possible with a small amount of carrefully spent money.

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Guest's picture

You also have to count in that not all euro countries have the same prices, even if they have the same currency. Austria for example has very reasonable prizes (less than 10 euro meals) and wonderful cafes. Italy can be really inexpensive in the south and you just don`t get better coffee than the one in Sicily..

Guest's picture

My boyfriend and I spent 3 weeks in Europe last August. We went to Dublin, Paris, Rome, Venice, Milan, Florence, and Gothenberg, all for under $4000 each, including flights. (We also went to London, but were lucky enough to be staying with a friend, otherwise the budget would have been much higher)

The three major expenses in a Europe vacation are:

If you plan well enough in advance, you can find great deals on transportation and shelter. We stayed in very nice hostels every night (save one night on a campground in Florence), and paid roughly 35 Euros a night for the two of us.
We took advantage of some great RyanAir deals, including a 0.01 fare from Milan to London, so including the airport fees, we spent 30 Euros on the flight for both of us.

Food can be VERY pricey, but there are ways around it that are very similar to the things you'd do at home. Things like eating a big lunch, getting take-out from restaurants, visiting markets, bakeries, and grocery stores, etc. will cut down on your food expense a fair bit.

And a note for anyone looking at getting a EuroPass for the trains around Europe - a lot of trains still charge reservation fees, even if you have a Pass. The passes are great for people who are winging their trip, but if you plan to be on specific trains, don't go this route. We would have saved money had we bought individual tickets, versus buying the pass and reserving trains in advanced.

Guest's picture
Paul H.

My wife and I are heading to Italy this September. The exchange rate is awful but we are simply sucking it up and dealing with it. Our flights really help us keep costs low as we booked them with miles. Still I am anticipating the trip to be more expensive than expected. Our solution, spend that Economic stimulus package in Rome.

Guest's picture

The dollar is dropping like a rock in a river, setting a new ALL time low against the euro just a few days ago. Traveling to Europe is only going to get more expensive in the next few years. If you are going to visit, do it soon.

If you have family in Europe, tell them to come visit you. Even if you split the cost with them, you will likely save money.

Guest's picture

I'm sure you didn't mean it, but your chosen words come across quite terribly.

While you can say Europe has a history, you cannot say Europe has an "atmosphere" or that Europe has a "food" - any more than you can say Europe has a smell, or Europe has a shop..

We know very to say the USA has an atmosphere - because that of New York City is a world away from that of Birmingham, Alabama.

Guest's picture

One good way to save money in Europe is avoid the larger cities, Dublin is horrendously expensive but Galway is much more reasonable with beautiful countryside, beaches and restaurants. A lot of the cheap airlines fly into smaller towns in mainland Europe and it is a great way to discover new places.

Guest's picture

My husband and I are taking our 2 year old son with us to Europe this September. We got our flights via miles...but still, we're very stressed about what this is going to cost us. We've been there many times, so we know some good cheaper hotels. Food can be very expensive. We rarely eat at restaurants and tend to get our food from bakeries and street vendors. And we don't drink anything but water.

We're also thinking of changing over some American dollars into Euros now...just to get in before the dollar falls even more.

I think it's all about traveling without expecting things to be like they are in America. Go ahead and get a hotel where you share a bathroom. It's cheaper and really not that big of a deal. Ride the Subway. Use RyanAir. Eat something you aren't used to. It will save you money and give you awesome memories.

Guest's picture

My husband and I have been trying to get to Germany for FOREVER. At almost $1K per plane ticket though, we haven't mustered up the enthusiasm to go. Lower prices would be so awesome.

Guest's picture

And I'm pretty sure you meant Old Europe in that sentence as well . . .

The thing that has always frustrated me about most "frugal" travel writing is that the budgets always far exceed my own meager means. Anyone can make it on a $500 budget -- I think it takes a lot more knowhow to enjoy London on $25/day. Sadly, many people are discouraged from traveling because they think (and travel sections seem to support) it must always be expensive. Readers who visit sites like Wise Bread already practice many of the budgeting skills they need to be "no-budget" travelers -- sometimes a few things just need tweaking to get the most bang for one's buck (especially at this exchange rate -- ouch!).

And David, if you make it over here, I'll *treat* you to a coffee in Berlin. The city's got a great cafe culture as well, and I think the price would max out at 3 euros ($4.50) per cup :)

Guest's picture

Location is by far the most important thing for the budget traveler. Not only does the proximity of your hostel to city center/attractions usually determine the cost per night, but the choice of which cities to visit (and how many) can be a major determinant of the cost. It's already been pointed out that Galway is cheaper than Dublin, and anywhere is cheaper than London, but you should also consider how many places you want to visit on the trip. While it's great to see a lot of different places, each new location trades off with time getting to know one city even better, and each trip costs that much more money.

This isn't to say that you can't get around Europe for cheap. I've seen ride-shares advertised on couchsurfing, and I hear craigslist is active in some European cities as well, but pay-for travel always has added costs. Reservations on top of rail passes (though you can often avoid this if you're willing to risk not getting onto a train - check the details for your route) and the taxes, bag-check fees, and out-of-the-way airport costs make the budget airlines less of a bargain than the .01c sticker price appears (though still worth it!).

There are advantages to the beaten path - the sites are likely to be open, you'll have little trouble getting around if monolingual, hostels will rarely be in short supply, you'll always be with a community of travelers - but you trade off so much. When traveling the standard Western European routes, or the recent Eastward expansions, in the peak summer season, you'll be paying more, dealing with bigger crowds, and seeing less of the place your visiting and more of the tourist culture that's taking over it for the time. Not that this makes Cinque Terre in July a bad decision, it just means that you might want to consider the Dalmatian coast of Croatia instead, or even Montenegro - a country functioning on the Euro but affordable nonetheless.

Guest's picture

... you mean that $25,000 that we just paid for our two weeks at a private villa in Tuscany was TOO MUCH?!

I guess that there's three ways to deal with vacations:

1. Don't have them

2. Cut costs so that you can afford a cheap one

3. Increase your wealth so that you can afford an expensive one

Having done 1. and 2., I can tell you that 3. is MUCH better!

Guest's picture

Hi David

You mentioned home exchange as a way of saving money on trips to Europe. Although most home swappers do it for more than money saving reasons (the convenience and space of staying in a real home rather than a cramped hotel room, to live like a local and get to really know areas away from the main tourist trails, to have one's own home cared for while away, etc), there's no doubt that home exchange is a great option when visiting expensive countries or cities.

The value of the pound has dropped considerably against the euro in recent months so please don't rule out a trip to my adopted city, London. I have been running a home exchange service here since 1985 and there's a very large number of attractive home exchange offers in the city (as well as homes throughout the UK, Europe and worldwide). Do have a look at some of the homes available for exchange: Home Base Holidays and check out the blog, Travel the Home Exchange Way for further information.

There's lots to do here that's free (most major museums, beautiful parks and walks, concerts). There are many, many pubs and cafes that serve good and reasonably priced food. And, if you plan carefully, you can still take in some of the more expensive tourist attractions (like the London Eye).

Spring has arrived and the parks are looking lovely. Do come!


Guest's picture

Just out of curiosity I went and typed in Hotels, Paris, about two week away into Hotwire. A four star hotel near the Champs Elysées is $196 US Dollars. Of course this usually depends on travel seasons and reserving very close to your trip. That is not the nightmare price I thought it would be. Another thing I noticed recently is that a one way flight was about the same price as a 6 day transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary that includes everything but tips and things like drinks & coffee. Both are rather expensive (in that $2000 range give or take) but the cruise wasn't that much more per person in the mid level rooms.

Guest's picture

Maybe it's just sour grapes for me since I can't afford to travel anyway, but air travel is one of the worst things one can do for the planet. It is terrible for greenhouse gases and it uses precious resources of oil in a big way. It actually distresses me to think that air travel may be increasing.

Guest's picture

Europe is a continent, not a city or a state. It is kind of ignorant to talk about Europe as a destination, since there are many places in Europe and... oh well, I give up... first, get a map!

David DeFranza's picture

I readily admit that whether you are talking about food, culture, history, demographics, or anything other characteristic, it is impossible to talk about "Europe" as some form of homogeneous whole.

In that first paragraph sentence I was hoping to refer to the many types of food, history, and culture that can be referred to as European, not trying to imply some single whole.

Sorry for the confusion on that point.

David DeFranza's picture

poetloverrebelspy, that offer of a free coffee is very tempting, thanks.